All posts filed under: Review

The Subversive Simone Weil—A Review

A review of The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, by Robert Zaretsky. The University of Chicago Press, 181 pages. (February 2021) “How much time do you devote each day to thinking?” That’s a strange question to ask a nurse from one’s hospital bed, but Simone Weil was no ordinary patient. On the contrary, philosopher, mystic, and, at that time, member of the Provisional French government in London, Weil was in every sense extraordinary. Praised by André Gide as the “patron saint of all outsiders,” known to her fellow students at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) as the “Categorical Imperative in skirts,” and dismissed by Charles de Gaulle as “a crazy woman,” Weil was certainly unusual. At once charmingly amusing and maddeningly irritating without meaning to be either, Weil was a bona fide eccentric. As T.S. Eliot pointed out, one detects no sense of humour in Weil. Candid to a fault and always in dogged pursuit of the Good, she believed that thinking is what gives us dignity and protects us from tyranny. …

Charles Murray’s ‘Facing Reality’—A Review

A review of Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America by Charles Murray. Encounter Books, 168 pages. (June, 2021) I’ve known about Charles Murray since 1994, when I was a voracious and unsupervised teen reader in rural Oregon grabbing the library’s latest issue of the New Republic the instant it was shelved. It was here that I stumbled upon the shocking views Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein expressed in The Bell Curve about race, class, and inequality in America. I didn’t give those views much deep thought at the time, and so my perception of Murray and his ideas hewed more or less to the dismissive conventional wisdom. It wasn’t until I read a 1998 essay in Commentary magazine by Christopher Chabris that I began to reconsider. Chabris argued that the media furor around The Bell Curve obscured more than it illuminated, and that the consensus among psychologists on the importance of intelligence to life outcomes was indeed close to what Murray and Herrnstein had asserted. To my surprise, in the 21st century, my relationship …

One ‘Maverick’ Documents Another—Jason Riley’s Biography of Thomas Sowell

A review of Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, by Jason Riley. Basic Books, 240 pages (May, 2021). Thomas Sowell is an icon. And, now, he has a biographer. While Sowell himself has written, by my count, 43 books, Jason Riley’s 2021 Maverick seems remarkably to be the first-ever major press biography of the heterodox African-American giant. Riley’s book sums up most of the key themes of Sowell’s thought, including the Anointed and Constrained visions of human behavior, the fact that the plain existence of racism does not explain most differences in group performance, and the idea of quantitative culturalism as an alternative to both “critical race theory” and genetic determinism. Sowell’s biographer also sums up two factual story-lines critical to an understanding of the man: how growing up outside the national elite allowed Sowell to become a truly innovative thinker, and how he (no doubt aided by revenues from all those books) remained a genuinely independent voice throughout his career—a conservative who never ran for office, rarely endorsed mainstream GOP candidates, and openly detested …

Modern Europe and the Enlightenment—A Review

A review of Modern Europe and the Enlightenment by Rumy Hasan. Sussex Academic Press, 240 pages (May 2021). In a June 2019 interview given to the Financial Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin brashly declared that the liberal idea had outlived its purpose. He supported this claim by noting that the public had rejected ostensibly “liberal” European policy stances on immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism. In his new book, Modern Europe and the Enlightenment, social scientist Rumy Hasan rigorously explores whether the aforementioned positions really are consonant with liberal democracy and the Enlightenment values that underpin it, and concludes that Putin was burning a straw man. If Hasan is correct, then the entire configuration of the political board game has been misconstrued. This makes his argument pivotal to understanding how well (or poorly) the rhetorical labels ascribed to political policies fit their substance. Modern Europe and the Enlightenment opens by presenting a balanced examination and robust summary of Enlightenment values. Hasan diligently charts counter-Enlightenment influences in Europe, whether in the cultural relativism of soi-disant liberals, the …

Six Great Ideas from Adam Grant’s ‘Think Again’

A review of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. Viking Press, 320 pages (February 2021). Of everything a person must maintain, his mind is most important, and king of all is his connection to reality. Yet, our tether to the world can be tenuous. Our ideas, particularly our most fundamental ones, help us make sense of the world. But if they’re wrong, they completely shift the image, like a turn of the kaleidoscope. Nature is no child’s toy, though, and to be commanded, it must be obeyed. So, as much as we hate to feel the ground move beneath our feet, we have real incentives to get things right, even if that means upending ideas we’ve held for decades. And, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant, the trait of regularly rethinking one’s beliefs, big and small, is what puts the best thinkers a cut above the rest. In fact, a propensity toward frequent and flexible rethinking in the face of new evidence may even outstrip IQ as an …

Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns—A Review

Review of Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left by Ben Burgis. Zero Books, 136 pages (May 2021). In 2013, British philosopher and cultural critic Mark Fisher found himself exhausted and losing interest in politics after spending too much time in the “miserable, dispiriting zone” of left-wing Twitter. Leftist politics, he wrote, had become a “vampires’ castle” the sinister denizens of which were driven not by thirst for the blood of the living but “a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd” [emphasis in the original]. The vampires are supported by the institutions of capital, which found them useful for disrupting working-class solidarity. In Cancelling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left, Ben Burgis—a democratic socialist, occasional Quillette contributor, and the author of Give Them an Argument—follows Fisher into (or out of) the vampires’ castle, and quotes his essay frequently. Over 136 pages, …

Masochistic Nationalism—A Review

A review of Masochistic Nationalism: Multicultural Self-Hatred and the Infatuation with the Exotic by Göran Adamson. Routledge, 138 pages (March 2021). In his 1945 essay, “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell contrasted “positive nationalism”—pride in one’s country—with the “negative” and “transferred” nationalisms displayed by supporters of the Soviet Union—the denigration of one’s country and the embrace of another. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their merits, but according to who performed them. “Within the intelligentsia,” he wrote, “a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory, but it is an unfaked emotion in many cases.” In his new book, Swedish academic Göran Adamson calls this combination of negative and transferred nationalisms “masochistic nationalism,” a term he then uses to analyse developments in modern Western Europe. Masochistic nationalism is defined as unjustifiable hostility to one’s own nation infused with a sense of pleasure and grandeur, combined with loyalty to another nation (or other nations) which are said to offer a more positive example of what nationalism ought to be. Adamson identifies …

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe—A Review

A review of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson. Allen Lane, 496 pages (May 2021) Viewed from a certain angle, history appears to be the legacy of our errors—the record of humanity risking too much and anticipating too little, getting things wrong and getting them wrong all over again. If there is a fatal flaw (in a Greek sense) that underwrites our experience of history and gives it a tragic aspect, it is—to appropriate a phrase from Kierkegaard—that we are doomed to live it forwards and understand it backwards. In his novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth called this “the relentless unforeseen,” the treadmill of the unknowable on which we are forever running. Roth’s novel—in which the isolationist celebrity Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and signs a peace treaty with Imperial Japan and the Third Reich—inverts our conception of catastrophe: America avoids the disasters of Pearl Harbor and the Second World War, but inherits other kinds, as the country finds itself insidiously neutral towards Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism festers, …

When Men Behave Badly—A Review

A review of When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault by David M. Buss, Little, Brown Spark, 336 pages (April 2021) Professor David M. Buss, a leading evolutionary psychologist, states in the introduction of his fascinating new book that it “uncovers the hidden roots of sexual conflict.” Though the book focuses on male misbehavior, it also contains a broad and fascinating overview of mating psychology. Sex, as defined by biologists, is indicated by the size of our gametes. Males have smaller gametes (sperm) and females have larger gametes (eggs). Broadly speaking, women and men had conflicting interests in the ancestral environment. Women were more vulnerable than men. And women took on far more risk when having sex, including pregnancy, which was perilous in an environment without modern technology. In addition to the physical costs, in the final stages of pregnancy, women must also obtain extra calories. According to Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, pregnant women in their final trimester require an additional 200 calories per day, or …

Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life—A Review

A review of Beyond Order: 12 More Rule for Life by Jordan B. Peterson. Penguin Books, 402 pages. (March 2021) “Any sensible person would be taken aback by all this,” writes Jordan Peterson in Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. He is trying to make sense of the astounding impact of his previous book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Why had the book’s message resonated so profoundly with so many? And what is the significance of its stratospheric success? What is to be learnt from his videos clocking tens of millions of views? And what motivated thousands to attend his sold-out world lecture tour? In one town after another, they applauded when he appeared on stage and hung on his every word. After the show, they sought not an autograph, but a handshake with the man they credit with breathing meaning into their lives. “My work,” he reflects, “must be addressing something that is missing.” Careful observation of his audiences revealed an answer—“the mention of one topic in particular,” he remarks, “brought …